TRAVEL ... Michael SHAPIRO
Interview by TAN MAY LEE
FOR TWO WHOLE YEARS, Michael Shapiro’s job was to read only the best travel books, and then travel across America, Italy and the United Kingdom to have conversations with leading travel writers, such as Bill Bryson, Tim Cahill, Pico Iyer, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Frances Mayes, Jan Morris, Redmond O’Hanlon, Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux and Simon Winchester, among others.
The end result of this is A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration (Travelers’ Tales, 2004), an award-winning collection of Q&As with travel writers, told in their own voice as they told Shapiro about their lives, hopes, aspirations and thoughts about the world, complemented with excerpts from their books.
Shapiro was born in New York. He describes himself as being “committed to social justice and global economic fairness, and I hope that in some small way my writing inspires people to get out and meet their ‘neighbour’ in this global village. I think understanding other cultures is essential to moving past the division and warfare that afflicts so much of our globe.” Travel writing, to Shapiro, “is special in that it can open up the world and teach you about undiscovered places.”
Do you think it’s easier to be a travel writer than a literary fiction writer?
Well, you need to imagine fiction while travel dictates the story. But it still takes tremendous talent to make it compelling. You still have to know how to structure a story and many of the same elements come into play: character development, suspense, lively description, scene setting, etc.
What are your top destinations, and why?
Often it’s a place I visited recently that made a strong impact. Many Americans think only about other countries, but I’ve just been on a 24-day river trip through the Grand Canyon that covered 300 miles of river. I used to work as a river guide and helped row our boat through the rapids. Often we gazed up at mile-high cliffs with rocks more than a billion years old—the American West is a treasure trove of wonders.
Is travel a luxury?
It used to be and in some ways it still is. But basic travel is more affordable than ever—and some advocates of travel, such as Arthur Frommer, say it should be a right of everyone. I feel everyone should have some ability to travel, and when I go to places like Cuba, which has well-educated and curious people, I find it heartbreaking that most of them can’t leave the island.
What was a situation that gave you trouble and how did you overcome it?
In 1989, I got to the airport a day after my flight to Guatemala left. I went to the airline office and the manager clearly wanted a bribe to help me change my ticket. I wouldn’t give it to him—luckily back then the tickets were handwritten, so I took a pen and changed the date from “22” to “24” and got on the plane without incident. I wouldn’t try that today.
Are you happy with the response to A Sense of Place?
Yes, with the critical response. It got favourable reviews from The Washington Post, The New York Times and others, but the publisher ran out of books just a couple of months after it came out, so there were just a few books available during that first Christmas season, which hurt the book’s momentum. When you put so much effort into a book, you want it to reach as many people as possible, so this was disappointing. But getting response from individuals all over the world who have somehow found the book is the ultimate gratification.
Reproduced from the July-September 2010 issue of Quill magazine